January 17, 2006

Education Vouchers

Reason magazine discusses a John Stossel programme on public schools in the US and their performance relative to other countries.

For "Stupid in America," a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. The Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks. The Belgian kids called the American students "stupid."

We didn't pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey's kids have test scores that are above average for America.

The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education.

Read in full here.

The show made the expected points about the homogeneity of public schools, lower incentives to improve poor performance, bureaucratic structures which make firing teachers difficult, etc. It went on to discuss the case in favour of education vouchers.

This case for vouchers isnít based on dubious claims about the automatic superiority of private solutions. There are many great public schools in the UK; they may even outperform their independent neighbours. However fact remains that some children must endure bad schools. Poor families in bad neighbourhoods canít afford tuition fees; they canít afford to move to a better area. Theyíre stuck. While we have Oxbridge politicians talking about respect, reform and results in schools the pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numerical skills. David Cameron will likely reject the idea because it Ďcanít be soldí to the public.

A voucher system may not cure all ills, but it would give pupils a choice. Giving control of funds to the pupils themselves would permit access to better schools in other areas, allow the development of new schools and give bad public schools a real incentive to change. That some public schools would be forced to close can only be a good thing. After all, why would parents leave a school that is doing its job? Our goal is not the existence of public schools, but the existence of institutions that prepare children for later life. If those institutions are owned by profit/non-profit firms, churches and mosques, then so be it.

An objection to a universal voucher scheme is that the only new schools to be developed would cater for middle class students, leaving the poor and those with special needs behind in sink schools. I donít think this is likely and it hasnít been the experience elsewhere. Iíll link to some info on other countries in another post. In any case, a second-best solution would be to grant vouchers only to these vulnerable groups.

Some say that they donít want choice. Theyíre not interested in carrying out research into which school has the best IT equipment, ratios of teachers to students, plans to develop sporting facilities, etc. They just want to send their child to the nearest school in the knowledge itíll do its job. Thatí fine. But just as having many different car manufacturers raises the average quality of cars, even for those uninterested in the details, a voucher system should increase the probability of the local school being a decent one.


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  1. Matthew

    Education vouchers are ridiculous. Consult Ted Wragg's deconstruction.

    19 Jan 2006, 09:55

  2. A few points on that article

    1. Itís patently untrue that the mobility of my cash allocation is the same as would be possible under vouchers. At present, I can spend my allocation only in schools that the government built. The most popular schools, for whatever reason, arenít expanding to cater for excess demand. If the poor in bad schools were actually able to exercise the articleís imagined freedom, we wouldnít be having this discussion.

    2. He contradicts himself when discussing bureaucracy. If he think that people
      already have a cash allocation which that is directed to whatever public school they attend, why should the introduction of more non-governmental schools increase cost significantly given that the whole process is computerised?

    3. He criticises a nursery scheme on the basis that state provided services went downhill and the rich were effectively given a subsidy. This is irrelevant: a) he doesnít say how the poorest families faired; many would have been able to enjoy services previously reserved for the rich, b) our aim is to provide childcare, not to maintain the number of state nurseries, c) why would people be leaving the state nurseries if they were providing a quality service? Even if we assume that the rich benefit disproportionately, targetted vouchers are an option.

    4. The argument that better schools will go through cycles of overexpansion and contraction is a weak. It is certainly possible, but he makes the bizarre assumption that these schools will mindlessly take on students without regard for the current level of capacity.

    It's a weak critique. Youíve got to be suspicious about an article criticising vouchers without actually referring to the schemes that currently operate in Belgium, New Zealand and Sweden. If the idea is ridiculous, surely these countries would provide much evidence to support you. On the contrary, those countries rank 1st, 7th, 11th and 4th respectively in the number of 15year olds achieving the highest level of mathematics proficiency in the OECD. There's also data supporting school choice from US states that have adopted such schemes.

    19 Jan 2006, 11:24

  3. Matthew

    The argument that better schools will go through cycles of overexpansion and contraction is a weak.

    I think you've rather missed the point. No one is claiming that schools will go through cycles of expansion and contraction. Indeed, the exact opposite. The point is that if they do not expand and contract according to some notion of "quality" — which of course they won't — then there no purpose in having vouchers.

    If he think that people already have a cash allocation which that is directed to whatever public school they attend, why should the introduction of more non-governmental schools increase cost significantly given that the whole process is computerised?

    Again, I think you're rather mixed up. Ted Wragg is not saying that cash allocations go to public schools at all, of course no state funding goes to public schools. He is saying that state schools' funding is approximately proportionate to the number of pupils they have. Which it is. If this is all you mean by a "voucher system" then it is hardly revolutionary.

    Given that only 8% of children are taught at independent schools, you really do need to explain why this revolutionary idea of funding schools in proportion to the number of children they teach hasn't raised standards dramatically for the other 92%. Why haven't all the good state schools expanded and all the bad ones contracted? And why would including another 8% in on this scheme make any difference at all? The answer of course is that education is rather more complicated than the arguments you have put forward recognise.

    Youíve got to be suspicious about an article criticising vouchers without actually referring to the schemes that currently operate in Belgium, New Zealand and Sweden.

    I'm not entirely sure what the point is that you are making here. Are you saying that you are suspicious about Ted Wragg's knowledge of international education comparisons?!

    19 Jan 2006, 20:52

  4. I think you've rather missed the point. No one is claiming that schools will go through cycles of expansion and contraction..

    Sorry, I misread that paragraph and in point 2, used Ďpublicí instead of Ďstateí.

    He still misrepresents the issue by saying advocates believe parent wishes will be met in all cases. It is not necessary for every preference to be satisfied or every bad school to wither away for the proposal to have merit.

    As for why most good state schools havenít expanded to take on more students, causing their poor performing counterparts to close down, thereís little incentive to. Why take on new pupils and associated paperwork when the per-student increase in funds is not guaranteed in advance; neither is money for resources to increase capacity (physical building & teaching resources). Standards within the state system will also be affected by LEA restrictions governing how schools can use their property, teacher remuneration/terms and teaching methods. I feel the benefit of detaching funds from the state is the potential for new independent institutions with more freedom to experiment. It is that pressure that may spur change in state schools over the long term.

    I'm not entirely sure what the point is that you are making here. Are you saying that you are suspicious about Ted Wragg's knowledge of international education comparisons?!

    Heís a professor. I donít doubt his knowledge, but I think he overstates his case. I doubt heíd have passed up an opportunity to highlight problems caused by voucher schemes in other countries were these problems at all significant. Perhaps the nursery scheme he mentioned proves his point, but how is the reader supposed to know. Rather than saying what happened to vulnerable groups, he simply took a snipe at rich families.

    19 Jan 2006, 23:29

  5. Jon K

    “But just as having many different car manufacturers raises the average quality of cars”

    That’s what we love to think for everything, I mean that’s what was thought about the Transport system in this country and look how that turned out?!

    Everyone thought: “Increased competition is so going to drastically improve the availability, standards…” Of course it has on some lines slightly improved, but at £40 the ticket I still expect a train to arrive and leave on time, and more trains.

    And then I go to France… with one of the best Train service in the world, perhaps. I mean it should be a complacent national Monopoly, right? Yet they have regular train services, fairly comfortable, on time every time. (In my experience)
    And yet it’s not privatised? I mean that’s just goes against your natural assumptions…

    On the topic of education, you do believe in an equalitarian opportunity to a high standard of education? Now that system of tickets will never work in the intended manner. Let’s illustrate this:

    School A (run down, higher poverty in area than average)
    School B (Good State school)
    School C (Excellent private school more so than the state school)

    Child 1: Child who lives in poverty.. parents do not work, alcohol problems… lack of educated parents.
    Child 2: Parents, middle income. Dad’s an engineer, mum works in a shop. Parents well educated.
    Child 3: Very rich parents, educated and will only want “La creme de la creme”

    You think that by, in other words allowing parents to have free choice of a school, they will select the schools they prefer (and the better ones) and get in. (Is your assumption) Which will mean that since less people will be going to the crappier schools they’ll close down, and the better ones will expand and new ones will be created and hey problem fixed.

    What will happen, is that Child 1 type won’t bother with the extra transportation costs to the go the better schools, their parents in general will not care… they’ll just want to stay where they live.

    More Child 2 type will try to get into school B and C, and the Child 3 will want to go to C… but how the hell are they all going to get In? I mean it takes year(s) to build new buildings, even more so to get it running, and we want to let schools run their own school like a business, having to spent more money on Bureaucracy (paperwork) than ever ;) . I mean would they have to select by children’s abilities? That would be just the contrary of what is needed? Who’s going to pay for it? A private complicated scheme in collaboration with the state? (Look what’s happened with transport, we now can’t find anyone to blame because there no big boss in charge) I mean we’ll have sponsors: great, what have they got to do with kids learning and accumulating knowledge at school? Why should they want to get profit out of them?
    Why should any business men be qualified to decide children’s education, or experiment with education?
    School A will still exist, it will in fact get worse since it will be even more the school of the poor.

    I think this statement describes what I believe is the truth:
    “Education is the backbone of any country, making its future and what youth will become, what values we want to give our future generations – education should be open equally to all children, with the same opportunities to acquire knowledge. So education should be in the hands of national or local governments and not in the hands of private sponsors.”

    NB: There is still huge state control in Sweden and Belgium who set the highest standard, and in Sweden the system has been heavily criticised and is a very important topic in the upcoming elections. They have had an increase in schools performing badly. The fact is, ask; a Swede or a Belgian if they think private companies should start making their own schools and setting their own ethos and education programmes… they will have very strong negative opinions with their reasons.

    11 Sep 2006, 19:05

  6. Jon, I agree with you that the railway industry should have never been privatised, but the rail industry and education industry are completely different.

    Anyhow, on my blog I’ve just done an entry on education vouchers so if anyone would like to groovy on down you’re more then welcome.

    05 Oct 2006, 11:42


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